As described in part 1 of this article, the St Cuthbert Gospel has a unique provenance; for four centuries it lay next to the body of St Cuthbert inside the wooden coffin that contained his remains from 698 to 1104. But it is a remarkable document in its own right.
The gospel book is the oldest European book to survive with its original binding intact. In the British Library it is displayed closed rather than open, showing off the intricately decorated dark red leather cover, with its design of a stylised vine springing from a chalice, surrounded by a lattice of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon knot work. To the untutored eye it is in incredibly good condition, far better than the binding of some of the Victorian era books on my bookshelf.
Although it is not possible to view the contents of the book in the library, the whole gospel has been digitised and can be viewed here. In comparison with the cover, the content of the book is at first a little disappointing in its plain simplicity. This is in great contrast to the contemporary Lindisfarne Gospels and suggests that this was a book produced for private rather than public use. Remarkably, the origin of the book can be fairly precisely located.
The St Cuthbert Gospel is written in Latin in a single hand and, apart from a few plainly coloured initials, the pages are undecorated. The text in the book is St John’s Gospel, one of four gospels in the Christian New Testament. Benedict Biscop, the seventh-century founder of the abbey of Wearmouth-Jarrow (twin monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in the north-east of England), made five journeys to Italy, bringing back manuscripts which the monks copied to make new books for the abbey’s famous library. A copy of the four Gospels, which had been in use in Naples in the sixth century, informed the text found in both the St Cuthbert Gospel and the celebrated Lindisfarne Gospels, produced in the same period. The Italian manuscripts brought to Wearmouth-Jarrow also heavily shaped the distinctive style of script in which the St Cuthbert Gospel is written. It is this script which identifies the monastery as the location at which the manuscript was made.
The St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library information sheet (pdf)
The relative plainness of the text, compared with some of the beautifully decorated manuscripts that surround it in the library’s Treasures room, reminds me of an even more ancient and significant manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, which can also be seen in the British Library. Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest surviving complete copy of the New Testament and is therefore a hugely important text, being one of a handful of ancient manuscripts on which all modern translations of the Bible are based. It is also remarkably well preserved and looks as if it could have been written yesterday. Like the St Cuthbert Gospel its elegant simplicity belies its inestimable value. Of course, to the person of faith, these are words of immeasurable spiritual, as well as historical value. As we read in the St Cuthbert Gospel:
haec autem scripta sunt ut credatis quia Iesus est Christus Filius Dei et ut credentes vitam habeatis in nomine eius
But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31 NRSV)